NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Pakistan spot-fixing scandal has once again shone the spotlight on illegal betting in the sub-continent and reopened the debate on the legalisation of gambling in India.
Since the Australian duo of Shane Warne and Mark Waugh admitted in 1998 to passing information to an Indian bookmaker during a 1994 tournament, cricket has seldom had a financial scandal without an Indian connection.
The latest spot-fixing scandal, in which Pakistan bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir are alleged to have bowled three deliberate no-balls by arrangement, continued the trend.
Arrested by British police on suspicion of defrauding bookmakers, Mazhar Majeed claimed he dealt with an Indian party. Two Australian cricketers also said they were approached by an Indian bookie in England last year.
Lawyer Rahul Mehra, who has fought numerous legal battles against cricket and other sports bodies in India seeking transparency in their functions, is not surprised.
“The Indians bet on the weather, crops and even smaller and trivial things. Cricket is a religion here and India is the financial hub. So it’s hardly a surprise that an India-Pakistan ODI draws bets worth $20 million,” Mehra told Reuters.
“The only thing is that here betting is not legal which is why there is little government control over the industry.”
Legal gambling in India is confined to horse-racing while casinos are allowed only in a couple of states.
Illegal syndicates are thriving, however, and Indian media estimates put the amount bet on last year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) at $427 million.
A Delhi trial court judge on Tuesday said gambling on cricket should be legalised to prevent the spoils being spent on criminal activity and to generate revenue for the government.
Former India cricket chief Inderjit Bindra has long been a supporter of legalisation for similar reasons and to help the fight against match-fixing.
“If betting is legalised, it will be in the interest of the government as not only will it eliminate match-fixing but also earn states revenue in crores (tens of millions),” Bindra, now an adviser at the International Cricket Council (ICC), said two years ago. “My personal view is that if you want anything to be regulated, it has to be legalised.”
The cost to the image of cricket from the involvement of Indian bookmakers in the manipulation of results has been huge.
The game suffered arguably its biggest crisis since the Bodyline series of the 1930s when Delhi Police released the transcript of former South African captain Hansie Cronje’s conversation with an Indian bookie in 2000.
Subsequently, three international captains -- Cronje, Salim Malik of Pakistan and India’s Mohammad Azharuddin -- received life bans, while a host of players were fined.
In the same year, Sri Lankan cricketers revealed being approached by Indian bookies during their 1992 tour of Australia, suggesting the rot had started much earlier than thought.
In 2004, former New Zealand skipper Stephen Fleming said he had been approached by an Indian sports promoter, while in 2008 West Indies batsman Marlon Samuels was banned for two years for passing information to an Indian bookie.
Columnist Ashok Malik, who comments on politics and the business of sport, does not subscribe to the view that legalising betting would end the problem.
“People should not confuse illegal betting with spot-fixing. Spot-fixing is as much a possibility even in a legalised betting industry,” he said.
“It’s not legality, the problem starts when bookies try to get prior knowledge of events and are ready to share their profit with the cricketers to fix incidents.”
“Having a legalised betting industry is not the solution. It’s like owning a hotel fulfilling all the legal criteria and then running a prostitution racket there.”
Malik does, however, believe that gambling on the nation’s favourite sport should be legalised.
“When lotteries and gambling on horse racing is legal, it is ridiculous not to legalise cricket betting.”
Mehra believes the Indian government should set up a commission to regulate the industry.
“Legalising betting is important, for this is no secret that everyone, including businessmen and corporate houses, wants to bet on cricket,” he said.
”Besides, legalising it would give the government some control over the industry. They should think about setting up something like a Betting Commission or Gambling Commission.
”Bookies would have to register themselves and everything should be bound by rules and regulation. Whenever you see anything fishy in the odds, you can track down the culprits.
“It would help not only the players, but also the bookies, spectators, government and the game as well.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Ossian Shine